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Fire

As part of it’s asset protection works, the NPWS have been clearing around critical assets – road signs. While such work is expected, the methods employed seem to be inconsistent with the latest koala Priority Action Statement (PAS).

According to the PAS – ” . . . Intense prescribed burns or wildfires that scorch or burn the tree canopy : Liaise with relevant authorities or land managers to ensure that identified koala habitat areas are defined as assets for protection in fire planning tools when managing wildfires and prior to any hazard reduction burns. Promote best practice fire management protocols in areas of significant koala populations. Liaise with authorities or land managers to ensure that any unavoidable prescribed burns within koala habitat are conducted in a way that minimises impacts on koala habitat.”

As indicated in the picture below, the clearing involved cutting down two trees. If reducing fire hazard was the aim, cutting the tree trunks a metre off the ground, thereby creating standing dead wood, seems inconsistent with this aim. Similarly the heads of the trees, have been pushed under adjacent trees, creating fine fuels, also a metre above the ground. A simple solution would be to cut the trees down at ground level and remove the branches so the logging debris is all on the ground.

oak-cutting
Meanwhile the Nature Conservation Council is seeking donations to encourage more use of renewable energy, particularly wind and solar.

If local conservation groups were concerned about climate change and supported a different approach, the NCC could also push for the NPWS to move toward a carbon negative approach to management.

I expect the NPWS asset protection workers were driving a large diesel powered twin cab ute. An alternative vehicle could be a hybrid fossil fuel/ electric powered unit.

In that case the trunks of the aforementioned trees could be employed to generate electricity to power the vehicles. The charcoal from this process, about 90% carbon, could then be put in the ground. This approach would decrease CO2 emissions, increase soil water holding capacity, reduce soil acidity and perhaps aid in reducing die-back.

Of course, such an approach requires both support for and the implementation of best practice fire management protocols, in areas of significant koala populations.

As reported in the Bega District News, a group of south coast oyster farmers recently met at Wapengo Lake. Clearly working to improve their Environmental Management System (EMS), the article referred to research, initiated by the farmers, into oyster growth rates in seven south coast catchments. The results found oysters in Wapengo Lake had the highest growth rates.

In addition, the research found different parts of the lake provided the best conditions for oyster growth, at different times of the year.

The EMS coordinator pointed out that oyster farms could be influenced by other land management practises, including cows in streams and unsealed roads and tracks. Graham Major, one of the Wapengo farmers said “ . . . We owe what we have here to the local landholders –  what happens on the land ends up working into the lake and that affects us greatly.”

I can attest to the work of the local land-care group, having joined them, now many years ago, to help plant trees and shrubs along Wapengo Creek. However, as indicated in the map below, much of Wapengo catchment was, until recently, State Forest. About 45% of the Wapengo is private land and most of the rest is now part of the Murrah Flora reserve.

Also indicated on the map is the most recent logging event in the catchment during 1994. Other larger areas in the south were logged in 1992 and 1993. Since that time and to the best of my knowledge, there has been no logging or deliberate burning in the forest. Although the last time the roads were graded was at least a decade ago.

 

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The BDN also reported on recommendations from the Independent Prices and Regulatory Tribunal (IPART). Among other things the IPART draft report suggests rating oyster growers, for using land (?) below the high water mark.

Naturally, oyster growers are less than enthusiastic about the proposal.

It would appear, that in Wapengo at least, growers face significant changes to forest management practices, given proposals to introduce broad acre burning, allegedly to protect koalas.

So it’s interesting that Bega Valley Shire Council, the ultimate recipient of any rates extorted from the oyster growers, is also represented on the cabal, for want of a better word, proposing the broad acre burning and posing a threat to water quality.

It may be one of those ‘catch 22’ situations, growers who can afford to pay rates to council, do so with the knowledge that council is working to reduce water quality and oyster growth rates.

 

The Bega District news recently reported on the first hurdles faced by the recently appointed Murrah flora reserve management committee. According to committee member and former NPWS employee, Jamie Shaw , “ . . . The poor regrowth and logging has happened, so now, as a priority for ongoing management we need to get the money, know-how to protect the koalas and include the Aboriginal community at all times, that’s key for us. ”

Jamie lamented that “ . . . the  NSW government and Forestry Corporation had given NPWS only $110,000 a year to manage the reserve which would go to funding one Indigenous Australian field officer, one vehicle “and that’s it”.

He went on to suggest “ . . .  2000ha in the reserves were a “powder keg” for bushfires and extremely poor habitat for koalas due to dense regrowth of casuarinas and acacias in the under and mid storys after logging in the ’80s and ’90s.”

While the 2,000 hectare figure for the ‘powder keg’ seems a lot short, the know-how issue could depend on acknowledging the bleeding obvious.

As indicated on the new reserve sign firewood collection is not permitted. Forestry Corporation had a similar sign. However, every winter dozens of tonnes of firewood are removed from just around here. Across the whole reserve the figure is likely to be hundreds of tonnes.

So perhaps the committee may consider some community engagement, to get an estimate of firewood use. Rather than the annual loss of dead eucalyptus, the strategic use oaks and wattles could be considered,  given they are both good fuel woods. If the local community can be accommodated, with some organisation, actually policing the firewood prohibition may also be a consideration.

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Relevant to the committee’s deliberations, the BDN also reported on some recently published long term fire research titled, Biophysical Mechanistic Modelling Quantifies the Effects of Plant Traits on Fire Severity.

Undertaken through Wollongong University, leader of the research Dr Philip Zylstra said “ . . . controlled burning could be helpful under certain conditions though at other times it was counterproductive”.

He went on to say “ . . . Instead of assuming that burning will make the forest less fire prone, we can now look at that and say ‘if we burn this forest it kills these plants, but it germinates these other ones here’ and how will that then change the fire risk over the coming years and even decades,”

This is the situation in most of the reserves, where logging and burning have combined with ‘natural’ forest decline to produce a very thick mid-storey layer.

Perhaps not surprisingly, a spokesperson for the RFS said “. . . We are currently looking at this topic however given that his research is some way from operational application and due to the complexity of the models, it is not something we can readily adopt.” Does make me wonder what the majority of reserve committee members will readily adopt.

This week’s Narooma News reports on a “. . . newly formed committee drafting the working plan for the Murrah Flora Reserves.” Those selected for the committee include five NPWS/OE&H employees, three reserve neighbours, chairpersons of the Biamanga and Gulaga management boards, two representatives from the South East Timber Association and a Rural Fire Service representative.

The inclusion of SETA representatives seems to infer the original proposal, to protect 2,800 hectares of forest from logging, remains on track. In addition and excluding the neighbours, whose opinions are currently unknown, all of the other committee members support burning forests.

According to NPWS ranger Simon Conarty, “. . . We have a real opportunity to implement a range of actions that will promote a forest structure and regenerate koala browse species to improve floristic diversity and habitat values.”

Exactly how this is to be achieved isn’t apparent, given die-back isn’t an issue and the first meeting focused on ‘cultural burning’ and 1080 baiting.  Simon stated, “. . . Cultural burning initiatives are strongly supported by the boards because they enhance fire management and provide opportunities to the Aboriginal community to connect to country and be involved in management across the landscape.”

Of course there is no information to suggest Aboriginals burned these forests. Rather the evidence confirms burning was largely constrained to grassy forest ecosystems and headlands. So it seems a shame that lighting inappropriate fires is seen as a way to connect with country.

On the 1080 baiting issue, the article refers to wild dog control, although it must be nearly 20 years since I last heard a dingo. There seems little doubt that losing dingoes has improved the lot for foxes. In that regard I recently found the fresh fox scat, on the left in the photo below,  within 1km of 1080 bait location, although the bait remains untouched.

scatbol

 

Simon also refers to the ‘20 threatened fauna species and three threatened flora species’, found in the reserves. One of the threatened species is the Powerful owl, although there doesn’t appear to be any Powerful owl records in the reserves post 2004. However, early this week, the day after a powerful owl was heard close by, I found the owl bolus, on the right in the photo, in the front yard. It was adjacent to a brush tailed possum’s head and entrails. Although they used to be a lot more common, populations of all forest owls were greatly reduced after the extensive canopy die-back event of 2002-04.

The NSW scientific committee undertook a review of the powerful owl’s vulnerable status in 2008. Unfortunately the information they had came from research undertaken prior to 2002. So it will be interesting to see if the OE&H/NPWS can confirm there has been no reduction in the populations of threatened species, including owls.

While dealing with the NSW government is a constant source of disappointment, I am happy to announce my trial syngas collector, on the second attempt, actually worked and surprisingly filled the 2,000 litre gas bag. The gas provides an additional heat source for the solar timber dryer, to reduce the moisture content. While the outcome is a little beyond my expectations, it seems reasonable to assume any notions the NSW government may take a different approach are well beyond expectations.

 

As expected, the coalition government’s Forest Industry Advisory Council has released its ‘visionary’ report titled ‘Transforming Australia’s Forest Products Industry‘. The Council recommends maintaining current access to native forests and greatly expanding plantation areas. However,  they advise ” . . . the industry needs to address poor community perceptions of the role that forest managers and industry play in protecting forest biodiversity through auditable forest planning systems . . ” .

In part to address the poor perceptions FIAC recommend a government funded ” . . . $300 million 10-year programme of mechanical fuel reduction as a bushfire mitigation measure for forest and community protection.”

In addition, given the uncertainty about whether plantations will grow at any given location. ” . . . Safeguards are needed to prevent plantation establishment on unsuitable sites. This could involve industry developing a technical review mechanism that examines site locations and species for their links to harvesting, transport and processing capacity; and an assessment of soil and rainfall suitability. Any reviews should be undertaken by qualified and registered forestry professionals.”

Speaking on local ABC radio, FIAC co-chair Rob de Fégely talked about developing forestry ‘hubs’ as part of the transformation. He went on to suggest the regional managers of Forestry Corporation and the NPWS, Mr Daniel Tuan and Mr Rob McKinnon fit the bill, because when it comes to trees, they know what they are talking about. (?!)

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Mr McKinnon is quite new to his job, since the previous chap was put out to pasture. In a press release earlier this year, Mr McKinnon spoke of planned burning across 22,000 hectares of National Park, suggesting it ‘will assist in reducing fuels and also have ecological benefits’.

Mr Tuan was given his job after the previous incumbent resigned, due to the illegal logging in Biamanga Aboriginal Place. What both regional managers share, given they are state government employees, is a belief that forest management does not need to protect and enhance biodiversity.

So it was interesting to read in the Eden Magnet, how FCNSW are now translocating endangered Southern Brown Bandicoots, to Booderee National Park. This follows the translocation of Long -nosed potoroos to Booderee, over the past two years.

According to FCNSW, due to its baiting program ” . . . There were now sufficient numbers of both bandicoots and potoroos around Eden to help boost populations elsewhere in the state.”
While this may be the case, Booderee NP is on commonwealth land and is run by the federal government, in a manner consistent with the National Forest Policy Statement. Hence the attempts to restore forest biodiversity.

The issue would seem to be whether FCNSW should be ensuring there are sufficient numbers of necessary species in the Eden region, as opposed to just around Eden, prior to packing them off else where.

Similarly, if the NPWS was seriously interested in enhancing biodiversity it would be putting its hand up to re-introduce locally extinct species. While this is clearly not the case, whatever else the NPWS do is not clear. For example, since taking over management of  the ‘flora reserves’ the NPWS  have not undertaken any fox baiting. All of the roads were in an appalling condition, but have not been maintained since the takeover and will be much worse after the current heavy rain ceases.

From this perspective, state government policy and practise has a great deal of room for improvement, forestry hub or not.

Flora reserves

 

This morning I went along to an information session, organised by the NSW government, about the new flora reserves. Held at the Tanja Hall, the poorly advertised session was essentially about burning and drumming up volunteers for more koala surveys. For me, it was difficult to see a strong connection to saving our species. Thankfully, my presence was based on the expectation that there will be no real change to management and at least in that regard, I wasn’t disappointed.

However, the session did provide an answer to one question, stemming from the “Corridors and core habitat for koalas’ project, about the proposal to translocate koalas from the Strzelecki ranges in south Gippsland to forests at Tantawangalo. It appears that this proposal has been ditched, apparently because the source koalas are too diseased and trying to move them would probably lead to poor outcomes.  Given these circumstances I expect no-one would want to take responsibility for deliberating putting these koalas at greater risk.

Consequently, It seems most likely that the failure of this proposal is the major reason for the flora reserve decision.

As for learning more about the new reserves, I was slightly hoping to see evidence of LiDAR mapping, also funded through the aforementioned project. Regrettably, no such mapping was evident at the information session.

Similarly, information on the alleged  “vegetation assessment to assess the effectiveness of the regrowth and vegetation in the area for the benefit of the koala population and the broader forest values”, wasn’t evident.

Apparently the idea is to undertake more koala surveys and then they will decide how to proceed. I expect, if it isn’t before then, they’ll all be reaching for the matches in their pockets to ‘protect koalas’.  Coincidently, attending the session was former forester Vic Jurskis, known for his belief that burning makes forests healthy and gets rid of koalas.

Also this week I spoke to the EPA regarding Forestry Corporation’s requirement to undertake koala surveys in Glenbog SF. The EPA, like me, were not happy with Forestry’s response and indicated they will be sending a letter. It seems unlikely this will  do much to change forestry from doing pretty much what they want. After all if the OE&H can do what they like, why can’t forestry?

Last Thursday, I dropped into the Council/OE&H drop in information session about Cuttagee catchment. It was soon apparent that the stated aim, to ‘ target environmental issues within the estuary and catchment’, had yet to progress beyond the estuary stage. On the basis that this progression may occur, I mentioned the extensive canopy die-back maps produced by Forestry for the catchment and region generally. Also Forestry’s observations that ” . . . In Bega Valley Shire, on the south coast of New South Wales, every near-coastal drainage system contains bellbird dieback.” (Jurskis and Turner, 2002)
The chap from Council suggested they could have brought along a map of the catchment. However, based on the information being employed, it would probably be similar to the 2010 Wapengo catchment plan map below. The Environmental Management System associated with the map, doesn’t mention die-back either.
Due to this arguably limited approach, confidence that major issues will be identified in any catchment plans may require an act of faith. Compounding the issue is the long term inability to acknowledge soil dispersion and its association with die-back.

wapengoems

Coincidently, some associated research on the vascular traits of eucalyptus has recently been published in Ecology Letters. Unlike other species, the research found eucalyptus trees ‘cannot quickly adjust the size of their water transport vessels to cope with variability in water supply’. This limitation makes them ‘vulnerable to extreme heatwaves’ and leads to the ‘risk of developing air bubbles in their vessels’.
If this outcome was linked with soil dispersion and the associated reduction in soil Water Holding Capacity, a reasonable person might consider trees turning brown and dropping dead, during quite short dry spells, a realistic outcome.
Of course when the forests are brown, the potential for a hot fire is very likely to increase. So it was interesting to read NSW emergency services minister David Elliott’s comments regarding the Rural Fire Service. In essence ” . . . that the service needed more qualified salaried people and that it wouldn’t be too long before he could do away with the Dad’s Army of the VFA.”
While the politics of the comment are complex, when it comes to quick fire suppression I’d rather place my faith in the Friends of Oolong proposal for night equipped air-cranes. Along with the Hercules fire fighting tankers, currently being trialled in NSW.

 

 

 

 

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